Adapted from article by Andy Davis / John S Stuart
Sometime between 9th September and the end of October 1969, probably while Freddie was staying with Geoff Higgins in Liverpool, Ibex underwent a mini upheaval – at Freddie’s instigation. “I recall him canvassing the idea of calling the band Wreckage, but nobody was enthusiastic,” reveals Mike Bersin. “Then he phoned me one night and said, ‘the others don’t mind. How do you feel?’ I said. ‘If they agree then fine’. So we went along to the next rehearsal and all the gear had been sprayed ‘Wreckage’. When I spoke to the others about it, Freddie had phoned them all up and had the same conversation”
The name-change went hand-in-hand with the departure of drummer Mike ‘Miffer’ Smith as Freddie documented in a letter to Celine Daley. Dated 26th October the letter bears the address 40, Ferry Road, Barnes SW13 – another flat rented that summer by members of Ibex, Smile and various associates.
‘Miffer’s’ not with us anymore,” wrote Freddie, “cause the bastard just got up and left one morning saying he was going to be a milkman back in Widnes. (he meant it too).” He goes on to boast that Roger and he go ‘poncing and ultrablagging just about everywhere,” which led to the pair “being termed as a couple of queen’s.” Interestingly, this word doesn’t seem to imply any of its more modern connotations. There was another term for that, as Ibex’s former drummer was well aware. “Miffer, the sod,” wrote Freddie, “went and told everyone down here that I had seriously turned into a fully fledged queer.”
“You can see he was exploring the concept there, can’t you?” interjects Mike Bersin, “to see how many people felt about it and how comfortable he was with it. He was always very camp, but when I knew him, he was living with Mary Austin, and I certainly knew at least one other girlfriend he knew at the time. So he was kind of straight then, but if he hadn’t come out of the closet, he was certainly looking through the keyhole.”
Crucially, as far as Queen’s pre-history is concerned, Freddie pinpoints the date when Ibex became Wreckage: “Our first booking as Wreckage is on Friday, 31st October at Ealing College,” he wrote. He also names Richard Thompson, the former drummer in Brian May’s 1984, as Miffer’s replacement.
“I’d known Freddie for years,” Richard recalls. “I first met him in 1966. I used to go round his house to listen to Beatles records. Then we’d go and watch Smile play, before he joined Ibex. I knew all of Ibex’s songs, as I’d watch them perform, so there was no point auditioning anyone else.”
With Wreckage’s first (and Freddie’s forth) concert appearance just five days away, the band set about rehearsing a new set. “Mike came down today,” wrote Freddie to Celine, “for a five hour live marathon practise. Richard collapsed halfway through and I’ve really gone and lost my voice (no kidding). It hurts just to breathe. Hope I’m OK for this Friday, ‘cause I’m going to out-ponce everybody in sight. (it shall be easy.)” Freddie ended the letter with this hitherto unpublished information: “We’ve written a few new numbers: 1) ‘Green’; 2) ‘Without You’, 3) ‘Blag-a-blues’, 4) ‘Cancer On My Mind’ (originally called ‘Priestess’.)
“Freddie always had very unusual titles at that stage.” Recalls Mike Bersin. “I can’t remember what ‘Green’ was about. It might be the one with the intro which went, E, A, D, G, D, A, E, A, D, G, D, A in guitar chords”. As neither Ibex nor Wreckage went within striking distance of a recording studio, none of these songs was ever recorded officially. Miraculously, however on of them has survived – and it’s the one that stuck in Mike Bersin’s mind, ‘Green’.
Richard Thompson is the man responsible for its preservation. “The song was taped at the flat in Barnes, on a Fidelity two-track recorder I’d had for about ten years. It was at the rehearsal for the Ealing College gig, after Mike had come down from Liverpool. I only recorded it so that I could learn the song. It is straightforward 4/4 in the middle, but we needed to learn the beginning. Most of Freddie’s songs were like that. I can’t remember the rest of them, but they were Hendrix and blues copies.”
‘Green’ is a melodic, medium-paced ballad, whose tone recalls that obscure Queen delight, ‘Mad The Swine’ and ironically, some of the more reflective material he wrote towards the end of his life. “There’s a sudden change in me…” sings Freddie “I believe my time has come. Any moment I’ll be drifting to the sun…Green, turning green. Rapidly changing through the bassline, turning green.”
The excellent quality recording survives on a 5” spool, and runs for just over 10 minutes. As Freddie revealed in his letter, the session was an extended one. In addition to his tired voice and Richard Thompson’s exhaustion. Wreckage had the other occupants of the flat to consider. So while Freddie sang in a hushed, compelling manner. Mike Bersin can be heard strumming along on an unplugged electric guitar. Only John ‘Tupp’ Taylor’s bass is amplified, while Richard Thompson keeps time by tapping on a cardboard box. Wreckage make several attempts at ‘Green’ before switching to another song, obviously a Freddie-composed number, which is difficult to identify from its lyrics because the band were interrupted before they reached the chorus.
“Whoever we were sharing the flat with came in and complained that it was one o’clock in the morning,” remembers Richard Thompson. “So Freddie stopped singing”, and there ended the final, and certainly most important pre-Queen recording.
Apart from pre-Queen titles like the previously documented ‘Lover’ and the newly discovered ‘Vagabond Outcast’; plus the three originals disclosed in Freddie’s letter to Celine Daley; there are a further four contenders for the title of the mystery track. That’s the number of unknown Freddie songs stencilled and typed onto a piece of paper by Richard Thompson in October 1969. Richard has a recollection that one of these, ‘Universal Theme’ was a Bulsara-Bersin guitar instrumental, which leaves three songs in the running – ‘Boogie’, ‘One More Train’ and ‘FEWA’, the last of which Sour Milk Sea’s Chris Chesney recalls was an acronym for ‘Feelings Ended, Worn Away’.
Despite an arduous rehearsal, no one seems to recall Wreckage’s debut at Ealing College, but Richard Thompson once again comes up trumps with a typewritten set list for the gig. In addition to playing all ten of Freddie’s originals mentioned above, Wreckage created an intriguing new live concoction by tagging the Beatles’ ‘Rain’ into 1983 – not a reference to Brian May’s former band, but the dreamy psychedelic soundscape from Freddie’s favourite LP, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’. They ended the set with ‘Let Me Love You’, no doubt inspired, once again by the version on Jeff Beck’s ‘Truth’.
Only an impression of Wreckage in general remains: “It was a far better group than Ibex, because of Fred,” recalls Geoff Higgins. “Mike’s guitar playing and ‘Tupp’s bass playing were always excellent, but Fred made it gel. It was a proper progressive rock band, which is what they’d always wanted it to be.”
Better than Ibex they may have been, but the brief history of Wreckage isn’t nearly as well documented. Only a handful of gigs were booked under that name, one of them which is rumoured to have seen them support US rockers Iron Butterfly at Imperial College – possibly at the 5th November 1969 gig listed in Freddie’s letter to Celine Daley. “We also played somewhere in Richmond, at a rugby club,” recalls John Taylor. “A friend of Brian May’s arranged it, and Brian came along. He thought our image was ‘savage’. He thought we were really good. ‘Oh Savage’ he said.”
What was probably the last Wreckage appearance took place at the 1969 Christmas dance at the Wade Deacon Grammar School for Girls in Widnes, apparently booked with the help of John Taylor’s younger sister, who was a pupil at the school. The date has gone down in history as the night when Freddie discovered what was to become his trademark. Fed up with the microphone stand he’d been using, he removed part of it from its base and leapt around in familiar fashion, gripping what amounted to a redundant three-foot pole attached to his mike.
“There are lots of legends about that,” reckons Geoff Higgins. “It happened all the time because we had a really crap microphone stand. It was one of those big, heavy three legged ones that most jazz bands used. Fred liked to move around, and because it was too heavy, he used to unscrew the middle and take out the pole. He did it all the time. It was purely a practical thing.”
Despite flashes of true potential, the end of the 1960’s also marked the end of Wreckage. Gigs were few and far between, and while John Taylor, Richard Thompson and Freddie remained in London, Mike Bersin was committed to his course in Liverpool. Inevitably the band petered out.
“Before I went down to London,” says Mike, “I told my parents what I wanted to do. They were completely horrified and had visions of me disappearing into the fag-end of swinging London in a haze of drink, drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll and never coming back again. They made me promise that if I got enough ‘A’ levels to go to Art College, than I would go. Eventually the letter came, and I had to tell the guys that a promise was a promise. I didn’t have any regrets. It was fun, but I didn’t perceive it as going anywhere. Freddie was serious but we weren’t. When we started to fall to pieces he moved on to something else.”